Conservatism and Foreign Policy

BY PHILIP VANDER ELST

 In the wake of President Biden’s betrayal of Afghanistan, recalling the shameful abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975 – a policy forced upon Republican President Gerald Ford by a Democrat-controlled Congress – millions of people have once again been surrendered into the hands of a ruthless totalitarian movement: Islamist in 2021, Communist back then.

This abject failure of American statecraft has not only delighted and emboldened Muslim extremists and terrorists everywhere, not to mention the murderous dictators of China, Iran, and Russia. It also raises new questions about the goals and criteria that ought to govern American and Western foreign policy. Do these include any permanent principles and values, or should the conduct of American and Western foreign policy be determined solely by some kind of ‘pragmatism – whatever that may mean?

I am one of those who does believe that behind the ever changing kaleidoscope of world events, there are principles and values of permanent relevance to what President Kennedy memorably referred to, in his 1961 Inaugural Address, as “the survival and the success of liberty”. What these are, and how they can be pursued, given the inevitable constraints imposed by limited resources and the complexities of relationships with very different societies and cultures, is of course a matter of huge and never ending debate.

In 1994, the London-based Freedom Association published my own personal contribution to this perennial debate: a paper entitled Conservatism and Foreign Policy, examining the whole subject from a British conservative-classical liberal perspective. Since one measure of truth is its ability to stand the test of time, 21st century readers must decide for themselves the extent to which my now 27 year-old paper passes that test.

In making that appraisal, they should note the relevance of my original analysis to three current geopolitical trends: the explosive worldwide growth of Islamist terrorism, especially in Africa; the continuing rise of China as an economic and military superpower under its increasingly repressive and aggressive Communist rulers; and the continuing advance of supranationalism despite the hiccup caused by Brexit. 

I should also add that the apparent co-existence of capitalism and tyranny in China is illusory, if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a genuinely free market economy in which privately owned businesses are protected against undue government harassment and interference by a legal system and an independent judiciary committed to the defence of personal freedom, privacy, and individual rights. The current Chinese model not only gives its ruling Communist elite indirect control of key sectors of the Chinese economy through the presence of CCP members in supposedly independent company boardrooms; that control is reinforced by the ubiquitous presence throughout Chinese society of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology, and by the legal obligation on all Chinese citizens to co-operate with government agencies whenever required to do so. Consequently, the link between economic and political freedom, and the importance attached to it in my 1994 paper, remains as valid an insight in the 21st century as it was in the previous one, especially in view of the economic destruction of Zimbabwe and Venezuela, and the assault on civil liberty, mounted by their corrupt and tyrannical socialist regimes.


           Conservatism and foreign policy (1994)

France’s greatest post-war leader, General De Gaulle, is reported to have said on one occasion, echoing the words of Palmerston [one of Britain’s 19th century Prime Ministers]: “Abroad, France has neither friends nor enemies, only interests.”

Should British and Western foreign policy be based on the same unabashed pursuit of national interest, or should it have a wider moral dimension? Is there a conflict between the two, as many people believe, or can moral considerations be reconciled with the defence of national interests?

I believe that Conservatism offers us moral and philosophical insights from which we can derive a number of important principles relevant to the conduct of foreign policy. These insights and principles, however, are not widely understood, and their neglect over the post-war [1945] period in favour of ‘pragmatism’ has encouraged the spread of poverty and tyranny, and cost millions of lives. If this intellectual myopia continues into the next century, we may be overtaken by even greater disasters in the coming years than we have known in the historically recent past. It is therefore supremely important that we should understand the nature and value of our political and cultural heritage, because only then will we learn to appreciate the connection between this heritage and the freedoms we so thoughtlessly take for granted. This in turn will help us to understand the necessary conditions for the survival and growth of freedom internationally, and the policies needed to attain these ends.

The lessons of history

The development of a coherent and principled Conservative approach to foreign policy must surely begin with a review of what history teaches us about politics and human nature. Only by grasping the truths it reveals can we learn what it is Conservatism must conserve in order to safeguard and promote the values we cherish.

The first thing we learn from the past is that civilisation and human progress primarily depend on a careful blend of liberty and order. In the absence of law and government, human life – to quote Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase – “is nasty, brutish, and short”. In the absence of freedom, on the other hand, law and government become engines of oppression and an obstacle to economic and social advance. Human beings, in other words, cannot live together in peace, or use their energy and talents to good effect, if their lives and possessions are not secure and they are not free to experiment, innovate, and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The second great lesson is that free, stable, and prosperous societies have been a rarity in history. The common lot of Humanity down the ages has been anarchy, tyranny and war, history being largely a tale of man’s inhumanity to man rather than a record of human benevolence and achievement. With the partial exception of ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, and ancient Israel, the world of Antiquity was dominated by absolute monarchies, and the institution of slavery was not only universal, but unquestioned by all but a tiny handful of philosophers. In the Middle Ages, freedom was constrained by the feudal system and the political power of the Church, and only began to emerge properly in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries after a prolonged struggle against religious intolerance and royalist absolutism. Since then it has suffered even more grievously at the hands of revolutionary socialism, that terrible creed whose bloody totalitarian seed was sown two hundred years ago during the French Revolution. Nor does this inevitably oversimplified account exhaust the litany of human woe since the beginning of recorded time. There has hardly ever been a year in which some part of the globe has not been devastated by war and its accompanying horrors, whist despotism, cruelty, and internecine conflict have reached far beyond Europe and the ‘Western world’. No-one, for instance, who reflects on the millennia of tyrannical dynastic rule in China, or the practice of human sacrifice in the old Inca and Aztec empires, or the prevalence of witchcraft and tribal warfare in pre-colonial Africa, can deny the universality of human wickedness down the ages, or minimise the enormous efforts that have been required to lighten the darkness of the human race.

The wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers

Steeped as they were in the history and thought of ancient and (to them) modern times, the great philosophers of Western liberty in the 17th and 18th centuries were fully aware of these truths. Their speeches and writings are full of acknowledgments of the rarity and precariousness of freedom, and constantly stress the difficulty of developing a form of government that will reconcile freedom with order. The authors of the American Constitution in particular, echoing Locke and Montesquieu, emphasised the frailty and corruptibility of human nature, and the consequent need for strong but limited government in order to check anarchy and prevent the abuse of power. As James Madison put it in The Federalist Papers:

“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

America’s Founding Fathers furthermore insisted that the need to protect property and limit the power of the State was as great in a democracy as under any other form of government. To quote John Adams, America’s second President:

“We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…”

Indeed, not only was a system of checks and balances required because all classes are corruptible, but there was also a widespread conviction in the 18th century that democracy has a built-in tendency to promote its own destruction. It was thought to encourage demagogic ‘bread and circus’ politics at the expense of peace, order, and productive minorities. As Alexander Tytler, a then contemporary British historian, put it:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury – with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”

Although, 200 years later, we now know that democracy can work and survive, who can deny the applicability of Tytler’s words to the history and politics of the 20th century, especially in the Third World? Even in Britain, and the other well-established democracies, freedom and prosperity have been constantly threatened by socialist attempts to bribe voters and extend the power of the State through nationalisation, taxation, and public welfare programmes.

Moral fibre needed

The third important lesson of history stressed by America’s Founding Fathers was that democracy and freedom can only survive and flourish if the citizens of a free society are public spirited, patriotic, and morally responsible. If, on the other hand, they are apathetic, lack self-control, or are only concerned with the shortsighted pursuit of pleasure and material gain, they will put their own interests before those of their country and will lack the civic courage to risk their lives and fortunes in the defence of freedom whenever it is threatened by external or internal enemies. Passion, greed, factionalism, and moral corruption helped to destroy the liberties of Athens and the Roman Republic in ancient times, and were similarly corrosive forces within the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. They are no less dangerous to democracy today. As John Adams put it in 1798:

“We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Knowledge of the past, then, not only reveals the moral and cultural roots of liberal democracy, but in doing so, also gives us the key to answering the question I posed at the beginning: ‘What should be the central objective of our foreign policy?’

My answer is simple. Since freedom and order are essential to human progress and wellbeing, the pursuit of them should be as much a goal of foreign as of domestic policy. Furthermore, although liberty, self-government and the rule of law are ‘Western’ concepts in the sense of being products of Western civilisation, the values they reflect have universal significance because they benefit all peoples and races, though the degree to which they can be enjoyed depends on the achievement of a certain level of economic and cultural development. I also believe that since history shows that human nature is fundamentally the same in all ages and cultures, the conditions necessary to the growth and preservation of freedom apply to all countries and to the relations between them. Finally, I believe that just as it is in the interest of the individual to live in a free and stable society, so it is in the national interest of a free society to live in an international order based on the rule of law and respect for personal liberty and national independence.

If the promotion of freedom ought to be the central objective of our foreign policy, upon what principles should it be founded? What is the right philosophical framework for a policy aimed at assuring, in John F. Kennedy’s words, “the survival and the success of liberty”?

The first principle of an intelligent Conservative foreign policy must surely consist in an acknowledgment of the rarity of freedom in today’s world and the consequent need to safeguard our external security through adequate defences and effective military alliances with other free nations.

Survival of freedom depends on deterrence not disarmament

In a century which has demonstrated that one-sided disarmament and appeasement strengthens tyranny and leads to war, whereas firmness based on deterrence preserves the peace, that principle ought to be beyond dispute. Everyone should be able to deduce that if appeasement in the 1930s paved the way for Nazi aggression in the 1940s, whereas deterrence through NATO contributed to the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1990s, the maintenance of an adequate military shield around its citizens is the first and most important duty of government. Unfortunately, that lesson has proved to be beyond the understanding of millions of people in Western anti-nuclear ‘peace’ movements. Where, as in Britain and the United States, the pacifist Left has been defeated and its influence contained by Conservative and Centre-Right election victories, the built-in reluctance of prosperous democracies to devote adequate resources to external defence has recently taken the form of foolishly premature defence cuts. I say foolishly premature because the collapse of the Soviet empire has not made the world a safer place. Not only has the disintegration of Soviet Communism (welcome though it is) encouraged instability and resurrected internecine national and ethnic feuds, but the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the spread of nuclear, chemical and missile technology in the Middle East and the Third World is giving rise to new threats to peace and freedom. Furthermore, despite the liberation of Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke, more than a fifth of the human race is still oppressed by Communism in China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and other remnants of the Soviet bloc, and half the member states of the United Nations are still governed by dictatorships. Is this a world in which it is safe for the Western democracies to cash an illusory ‘peace dividend’? I do not believe so, and I think it is a dereliction of duty and a betrayal of elementary Conservative principles that our present Conservative Government [of John Major, 1992-1997] should be instituting defence cuts which will leave our already overstretched and underfunded armed forces spread even more thinly on the ground in the future. And this, despite being reminded of the importance of military power by the recent Gulf War [1990]!

Dictatorships inherently more aggressive than free societies

The recollection of the effort that was required to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and contemplation of that tyrant’s war of genocide against the Kurds, illustrates the truth – supported by countless other examples – that dictatorships are inherently more aggressive and militaristic than liberal democracies. Absolute power not only corrupts dictators and increases their desire for control over the lives and possessions of others; it also frees them from the constraints of public opinion and so removes a powerful barrier to military adventurism. It is therefore not a coincidence that the most highly militarised and aggressive states in the 20th century have been socialist ones. Just as Hitler’s war machine was the product of a National Socialist regime based on the worship of the State and a government controlled economy, so the wars of conquest and aggression launched by the Soviet Union and its allies since 1945 have been the product of a revolutionary ideology committed to the destruction of capitalism and the global triumph of Marxism. It is also significant that according to a 1985 study by an American academic, James L. Payne, using data compiled by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Britain’s Institute of Strategic Studies, Marxist countries are far more highly militarised than non-Marxist ones, having armed forces more than twice as large as non-Marxist ones. Hence the relevance of the second important principle of a Conservative foreign policy: that it is in the national interest of free societies to work for the replacement of autocracies by freer forms of government.

No instant democracy

This immediately brings us to the third and fourth principles upon which any honourable and realistic foreign policy must be based. The first of these is that since parliamentary democracy and the rule of law cannot grow overnight in unsuitable cultural soils, the West should not expect immediate adherence to its political standards in the Third World. It should instead encourage the evolution of the economic and cultural conditions necessary to the gradual development of liberal democracy. Secondly, where local historical and cultural conditions prevent the rapid emergence of liberal democracies, authoritarian regimes are preferable to totalitarian ones because they are usually less oppressive and hostile. It therefore makes sense to establish friendly relations with them both in order to prevent them falling prey to totalitarian revolutionary movements, and because by doing so it is possible to bring pressure to bear in favour of liberal reform.

The history of post-colonial Africa provides the most graphic and terrible demonstration of the truth that in the absence of its economic and cultural preconditions, the premature imposition of one-man-one-vote democracy only leads to disaster and tyranny. In nearly every black African country, tribalism, illiteracy, personality cults, and socialist models of development have destroyed the economy, led to dictatorship, and in many cases provoked bloody civil wars and terrible famines. As the black American economist, Walter Williams, has put it:

“Decolonised Africa stands as a living example of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’…The Africans’ British, French or Portuguese masters either left peaceably or were forced out. But the people, like the animals on Orwell’s farm, found their new masters far worse. Sovereignty was confused with freedom. Ghana was Africa’s richest country when it became independent in 1957; now it’s one of the poorest. In places like Uganda, the Central African Empire, Mozambique, where the rule of law for the common man existed during colonial times, there has been mass murder and genocide. The African common man, like Orwell’s animals, might now wonder whether life was better under colonisation than under their new dictators…Africa’s past experience should give Western anti-apartheid activists some pause for thought…Black rule alone is no guarantee of black freedom.”

Much has changed in Africa since those words were written, and one or two countries, like Zambia, have seen dictators removed in peaceful elections, but these examples are still the exception rather than the rule and it is anyone’s guess whether these shoots of green will survive and grow in the inclement cultural climate of that unhappy continent. But whatever the future holds, the experience of the last three decades has emphasised by omission that the establishment of civilised constitutional government depends on the development of a shared sense of nationhood and values; a tradition of tolerance and ‘give and take’, and the existence of a large, educated, property-owning class with a vested interest in stability, competent administration and the rule of law. If these conditions are absent, or insufficiently developed, no paper constitution, Bill of Rights, or international treaty will preserve civil liberties or parliamentary democracy. That is the lesson and the challenge for those currently seeking change in South Africa.

Recent history also emphasises the truth of my proposition that authoritarian governments are not as dangerous and tyrannical as totalitarian regimes. Traditional monarchies and personal dictatorships are politically repressive but, like Spain under Franco, or Iran under the late Shah, tend to interfere relatively little in the economic and private lives of their subjects, who often enjoy considerable freedom of conscience and expression within their homes, families, and private circles and associations. Sometimes authoritarian governments even tolerate a certain amount of public criticism if they feel sufficiently secure politically and militarily, as South African governments did even at the height of apartheid. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, as their label implies, extend the control of government over every aspect of the individual’s life, leaving no significant social sphere outside the State. Hence the suffocating atmosphere of suspicion and conformity that has always characterised Communist countries, and their much greater levels of poverty and repression. Revolutionary fervour and ideological tyranny are also the ingredients that characterise contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and explain why the Islamic revolution in Iran has proved far more bloody and repressive than the personal autocracy of the deposed Shah. To quote the words of Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist, surveying the record of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime:

“The Ayatollah’s own officials portray a nation that is poorer, less free and more frightened than at any other time in its recent history. Since 1979 more than 1.2 million Iranians have been killed in war, tribal revolts, counter-revolutionary insurgency and mass executions ordered by the government. This means that every hour of Khomeini’s rule has passed at the cost of at least 10 Iranian lives…More than a million Iranians have spent some time in prison during the past decade, with an estimated 100,000 still behind bars. A further 2 million people, among them many of the nation’s technocrats and teachers, have fled the country.”

The very fact that the Iranian revolution has provoked such a large exodus of refugees shows that ordinary people appreciate the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian governments, even if they cannot or do not articulate it in philosophical terms. This is particularly true of the 30 million refugees who have voted against Communism with their feet since the end of the Second World War, since many of them fled to countries or regions controlled by ‘right-wing’ authoritarian regimes, and helped to defend them against the Communist dictatorships they had escaped from – most notably in Vietnam and Korea. That they were right to do so was vividly illustrated by the experience of South Vietnam after its conquest by the Communist North in 1975. In the words of a former Vietnamese Communist minister who fled the country in 1979:

“Never has any previous regime brought such masses of people to such desperation. Not the military dictators, not the colonialists, not even the ancient Chinese overlords.”

The link between capitalism and freedom

The desirability of defending authoritarian (or quasi-democratic) regimes against totalitarian revolutionary movements whilst at the same time trying to liberalise them, draws attention to the fifth principle that should characterise a coherent Conservative foreign policy: namely, that since the existence of private property and free enterprise are essential to the emergence of free societies, the West should encourage the spread of privatisation, free trade and economic liberalism throughout the world.

The case for doing this is underlined once again by default, by the fact that the alternative policy of using overseas aid to support socialist patterns of development in the Third World has created poverty and tyranny everywhere, particularly in post-colonial Africa. As that great development economist, Professor Bauer, has pointed out: heavy taxes, the nationalisation of agriculture and industry, price and import controls, and other government restrictions on trade, have all resulted in the destruction of incentives, the destruction of markets, the discouragement of production, and the impoverishment of farmers, tradesmen, and the population at large. In addition, socialist policies have encouraged the growth of huge parasitic bureaucracies dispensing permits, licences and favours, with the inevitable consequence that every variety of nepotism, bribery, and corruption, has flourished. Worst of all, by fostering the growth of the power of the State, socialist policies have not only destroyed liberty; they have also exacerbated religious, ethnic, and tribal divisions, by creating a system in which too many people’s livelihood depends on whether they or their rivals control the machinery of government and its apparatus of patronage. That is one of the reasons why so much of the Third World has been torn apart by revolts, military coups and civil wars. To quote Paul Johnson’s summary, in his History of the Modern World, of the economic and social decline of post-colonial Africa:

“The thirty-odd civil and foreign wars the new African states fought in their first two decades produced a swelling total of refugees…By the early 1980s, all the newly independent states, with the exception of the Ivory Coast, Kenya and the three oil-bearing territories, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria, were poorer than under the colonial system. Some had moved out of the market economy altogether. In these circumstances, the quite rapid material progress which had been a feature of the final phase of colonialism, 1945 – 60, was reversed.”

To replace this pattern of despotism and decay by a process of economic growth and political and economic liberalisation, will not be easy. Moreover, the capacity of Western countries to foster the advance of freedom and democracy in regions outside their direct control is limited. But all this does not change the fact that the seeds of future progress can be sown if the West uses its economic and political influence to encourage the adoption of policies that spread ownership, decentralise power, and create a social environment favourable to thrift, enterprise, education, and the work ethic. Only by developing a culture of responsible capitalism can the poorest parts of the world become prosperous and the increasing flow of economic refugees to the West be stemmed.

Although the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and elsewhere has discredited Marxism and stimulated a worldwide trend in favour of privatisation and free markets, much of this trend is patchy and superficial, and many Western policy-making and cultural institutions are still dominated by leftward-leaning intellectuals who hanker after new forms of collectivism – usually of the ecological and regulatory variety, buttressed by State controlled education and welfare services. As a result, few people in the West understand what I would describe as the sixth principle of a Conservative foreign policy: that since socialism is economically unviable and has produced the worst tyrannies in history, the West should stop breast-feeding socialist countries with credits and technology since this process does not encourage pluralism but only strengthens the military and industrial might of the State, so reducing the pressure for internal reform. 

The relevance of this principle is underlined by the lessons of recent history and by current Western policy towards Communist China and towards socialist and Islamic dictatorships like Syria and Iran.

Although it is difficult to believe, the staggering truth is that Western capital, ‘know-how’, and technology nourished the industrial and military power of Communism for nearly three quarters of a century. Ninety per cent of Soviet technology after 1917 originated in the West, and trade with the Communist bloc transferred important Western technologies to other Marxist tyrannies after 1945. By 1988, Communist bloc indebtedness to the West amounted to $131 billion. Yet what was the result of this Western largesse and shortsighted pursuit of profit? The maintenance of a political system which has slaughtered over 100 million people in internal repression around the world, and which has only disintegrated within the Soviet sphere because its internal crisis could not be resolved despite the time bought by Western aid. It is therefore both shameful and dismaying that instead of learning from this experience, Western countries have been resuming ‘normal’ trading relationships with China only three years after its still unrepentant Communist leadership’s savage repression of the Democracy Movement.

It is similarly deplorable that diplomatic, business and trading links are being resumed with Iran and Syria despite the closed nature of these societies, their illiberal and anti-Western ideologies, and their continued status as godfathers of international terrorism. It seems, as in the case of China and Communism that our political leaders have not learned from their mistakes in dealing with Iraq. Just as Western trade and technology helped to build-up the power and encourage the ambitions of Saddam Hussein, so it will help to enhance the industrial and military power of Iran and Syria without moderating their regimes or lessening their fundamental hostility towards us. The error of thinking otherwise lies in the mistaken belief that deep-seated ideological antagonism can be bought off with money and that economic relations with totalitarian governments encourage the same liberalising tendencies as trade between non-totalitarian countries.

The reluctance of materialistic societies like our own to abandon shortsighted ‘pragmatism’ in favour of a more principled approach, is a dangerous weakness at a time of rising Islamic militancy in North Africa and the Middle East. If we wish to defend and promote freedom, we cannot ignore the threat Islamic fundamentalism poses to freedom of thought, the rights of women and non-Islamic minorities, and the Western democracies. The Koran states, for instance: “Make war upon those who believe not…even if they be People of the Book [i.e. Jews and Christians], until they have willingly agreed to pay the Jizya [tax] in recognition of their submissive state.” (Repentance, Sura 9, 29). If, therefore, Iranian-style regimes come to power in other Middle Eastern and Arab countries, led by people preaching ‘holy war’ against the West in accordance with this injunction, peace and liberty will be in peril if, in obedience to greed and shallow attitudes, we have unwittingly supplied our enemies with the military and technological fruit of Western enterprise and innovation. Let us therefore take heed while there is still time.

Supranational threat

Although the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the possible re-emergence of totalitarian forces in Russia cast a shadow over the future, perhaps the greatest long-term threat to freedom is the movement towards supranationalism – towards the ideal and objective of world government. Hence the critical importance of the seventh and last principle that should inspire a Conservative foreign policy: namely, the need to preserve our national independence and oppose the growth and extension of government across national boundaries.

The most immediate and serious manifestation of the rising spirit of supranationalism lies on our [Britain’s] doorstep in the shape of European federalism.

Ever since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, the European Community [E.C.] has been committed by its constitution to the eventual creation of a European State, which is what is implied by laying “the foundation of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” That process was taken a stage further by the passing of the Single European Act in 1991 and is now poised for a further major advance if the national parliaments of the E.C. member countries ratify the December 1991 Treaty of Maastricht. Since the British Government [of John Major] denies that the Treaty of Maastricht is a federalist document, a brief analysis of some of its salient features is necessary before I turn to the reasons why Conservatives should resist the currently accelerating drift towards a federal Europe.

Although the word ‘federal’ does not appear in the Treaty, its federalist character is revealed in the opening words of the Treaty on political union, which states: “By this Treaty, the High Contracting Parties establish among themselves a European Union…This Treaty marks a new stage in the process creating an ever closer Union among the peoples of Europe…” Since the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘unite’ as meaning “Join together, make or become one, combine, consolidate, amalgamate”, European Union clearly implies the eventual creation of a European State. It is furthermore significant that the treaty on political union declares that: “Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State [including our Queen] shall be a citizen of the Union…Union citizens resident in Member States of which they are not nationals will have the right to vote and stand as a candidate at municipal and European elections.” 

Does this not imply federalism? Look, in addition, at what the Maastricht Treaty says about foreign policy: “The Union and its Member States shall define and implement a common foreign and security policy” whose objectives shall be “to safeguard the common values, fundamental interests and independence of the European Union.” Does not this language describe a new entity that is clearly intended to be greater than the sum of its parts? 

The conclusion that it does precisely that is further reinforced by other provisions of the Maastricht Treaty. Common European policies, for instance, are to be increasingly pursued in such fields as education, regional development, industry, energy, transport, culture, the environment, research and technology, and overseas aid and development. There is also pressure to develop a common policy on immigration. But more important than any of these is the monetary union treaty, which commits the European Community to the creation of a single currency [today’s Euro] by 1999. That alone practically guarantees the development of a Federal State since a single currency implies a single economic and monetary policy, and that in turn implies a common European government.

The powerful case against a federal European State

Against this background, it is dismaying to see a supposedly Conservative Administration [John Major’s] refusing to acknowledge the true nature of the Maastricht Treaty and refusing to oppose the principle of a single European currency. For this reason among others, the immensely powerful case against European federalism must be spelt out in order to recall the [British] Conservative Party to its traditional duty of defending the rights and liberties of the British people against external as well as internal encroachment.

The first and most obvious objection to European federalism is that its destruction of Britain’s national independence would destroy our right to govern ourselves, and would prevent us controlling our own country. Even if all European institutions were totally subject to the democratic control of a strengthened European Parliament, British MEPs would remain in a permanent minority and would not be able to defend British interests against the wishes of the multinational majority. That means, for instance, that the British electorate could return a nationwide Conservative majority in European elections only to see its voice overridden by a socialist majority in the European Parliament. In addition, our Westminster Parliament would become nothing more than a provincial assembly with little significant power. Is this the future we want after so many centuries of independence? We have already lost control over our agriculture, our external trade, and our fishing grounds; do we want to lose control over everything else?

Loss of national independence within a federal Europe would also put an intolerable strain on democracy throughout the Continent. Minorities can only live with majority decisions they disagree with if they feel part of the same community sharing a common language, culture and history. Will they continue to do so if normal political and ideological divisions are intensified by differences of language and culture? Similarly, the rule of law only functions harmoniously when people’s acceptance of laws they dislike is rooted in the knowledge that law is made by their elected representatives and can be changed by their protests and votes. In a Europe governed by a Parliament currently representing 12 electorates [which rose to 28 just before the 2016 Brexit referendum victory], 10 languages and 89 political parties, the opportunities available to minorities to make their voice heard and their influence felt, will be greatly reduced. Not only will the value of their votes be greatly diluted in a much larger electoral pool, but the impact of their protests and campaigns will be muffled by linguistic and cultural barriers. The end result of all these difficulties will be the inflammation and intensification of national and ethnic rivalries, and the growth of xenophobic nationalist movements threatening the peace and harmony of Europe. Is this a risk worth running in the name of “ever closer” European integration?

The realisation that European federalism poses an unacceptable threat to national sovereignty and democracy should be enough to discredit it as an ideal, but there is an even more compelling argument against it: the establishment of a European State would undoubtedly endanger freedom.

A European State would threaten freedom

If, as I indicated earlier, observation of human nature and the evidence of history demonstrate that power has a tendency to corrupt, it is folly to create a new and extra layer of supranational government at the European level. To centralise and extend the power of the State in this way will not only increase the likelihood that it will be abused; it will also make it more difficult to escape the consequences of future tyranny since the elimination of national sovereignty will reduce the number of potential havens for political refugees.

Some may object, at this point, that the chances of European federalism leading to dictatorship are remote given that all the Member States of the European Community (E.C.) are democracies, but that is an extremely shallow and shortsighted view that takes no account of human weakness and European history. To build a federal Europe on truly liberal foundations requires a considerable degree of political and cultural homogeneity rooted in a common and long established liberal tradition. This, unfortunately, does not exist. Apart from Denmark and Holland, Britain is the only E.C. Member Country that has enjoyed three centuries of peaceful constitutional government under a constitutional monarchy. In the same period, France has experienced 2 monarchies, 2 revolutions, 2 empires and 5 republics; Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, have all been ruled by dictatorships in the historically recent past, and the first three countries – plus Belgium – have only been unified nation states since the 19th century. Furthermore, unlike the case in Britain, national order and political stability have in recent decades been disrupted on the Continent by civil wars and military occupation. This hardly suggests that fears about the potential impact of European federalism are groundless, particularly when one recalls that ever since the days of the Roman Empire the only serious attempts to unify Europe under one political authority have been through the use of force, the last attempts having been mounted by Napoleon and Hitler. It is, moreover, a fact that even in the United States, with its strong tradition of political freedom and Anglo-Saxon common law, the power of the Federal Government has shown a constant tendency to increase despite many efforts to restrain its growth and keep it within the constitutional bounds established by the authors of the American Constitution.

Internationalist alternative

The need to resist the development of a federal Europe, and to defend and reclaim Britain’s national independence, is not only justified by the arguments against a European State; it also recognises that there is a vital difference between supranational empire-building and the much more liberal ideal of internationalism. The latter emphasises that real peace and harmony are best achieved through free trade and co-operation between independent sovereign states, because this fosters economic interdependence and personal contacts without creating a dangerous and unnecessary political and bureaucratic Leviathan. Consequently, General De Gaulle’s vision of ‘Une Europe des patries’ is more in keeping with the spirit of British Conservatism, and with our own precious heritage of freedom, than the supranational collectivism that pursues the false dream of the Caesars and seeks to rebuild the Tower of Babel. 

 

Copyright © 2021 Philip Vander Elst


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a British freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for conservative and libertarian papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, the American Spectator, and the Freeman. Since 2003 he has become increasingly engaged in Christian apologetics, having made his own journey from atheism to faith during the 1970s. He is the author of many and varied publications including: C.S. Lewis: a short introduction (Continuum 2005), Is There No God? the improbability of atheism (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, bethinking.org 2010), Can we be free without God? (bethinking.org 2010), From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey (bethinking,org 2011), Power Against People: a Christian critique of the State (The Moral Liberal 2012), and The Principles of British Foreign Policy (Bruges Group 2008). An experienced speaker and former officer of the prestigious Oxford Union Debating Society, Philip has completed nine lecture tours of the United States since 1975, speaking in many American universities and colleges, including Mary Baldwin, the University of Richmond, the University of Colorado, Washington and Lee, Georgetown University, the University of Alabama, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.